Monica Rueda/AP/File photo
Cuban American singer-songwriter Gloria Estefan is headed into the Songwriters Hall of Fame in June, and she will be the first Hispanic woman to be inducted.
She’s already won multiple Grammy Awards, a Kennedy Center Honor and the Presidential Medal of Freedom. Five of her songs have gone to No. 1 on the charts, and she’s had gold, platinum and multiplatinum records.
And she is a pioneer of Latin music, opening the door for other Latin artists who found their place on the US music scene — people like Jennifer Lopez, Shakira and Ricky Martin.
Estefan said it doesn’t surprise her that it took so long for a Hispanic woman to receive this latest honor because awards haven't been around that long, and change takes time. Plus, “every year, they choose five or six people, and there are so many incredible artists. It's a tough choice to make.”
Also, in the past, she said, some Hispanics changed their names to find work in the music and movie industries and may not be recognized for their roots.
Monica Rueda/AP/File photo
Growing up, she said, she didn't expect that her music would resonate with so many.
“I remember sitting as a child with the albums and the liner notes, reading every lyric, listening to every word, and a lot of those incredible artists — Carole King, Stevie Wonder, Elton John, the Beatles — they spoke to me. Never would I have imagined or dreamed at the time that one day, the words and the music that I would write would do the same for other people.”
Her music ushered in a shift in the industry — it brought Latin idioms and high-energy '80s production values to American audiences.
“When I joined the band, they only did Latin music, and I brought the influence of dance music and pop and ballads. We did our first two albums completely bilingual, half in English and half in Spanish.”
So, when Sony came to sign with them, she had to convince them to allow them to continue that way.
“Then, all of a sudden, we were No. 1 in Europe.”
Radio was even more challenging. She was told her music was too Latin for Americans.
“It wasn’t until an independent promoter, who had a friend in St. Louis, begged him to give it a shot and play the song 'Conga' just once. The guy did and the phones went crazy.”
A year later, “Conga” made it to the Top 10.
"Mi Tierra (My Homeland)", was her first album in Spanish that went to the international market — it represented more than simple vindication.
Cuban musicians had to leave their homeland behind to perform their music. Those who remained were severely restricted in what they could record or have played on the airwaves.
“If you weren't toeing the [President Fidel] Castro [government] line, they were frozen. The musicians who left, like Celia Cruz, the minute they left Cuba, they were erased from the musical history books, purposely," she said.
Estefan, whose family moved to Miami in the 1960s, said it was crucial to convey that her homeland resides within her.
She has also been inspired by her father, who was a political prisoner in Cuba after he joined the Bay of Pigs invasion that tried to overthrow Castro. Her father later served in the Vietnam War with the US Army but got agent orange poisoning and died at 47.
Estefan said her father was ever-present in her songs, like "Oye Mi Canto (Hear My Song)" about freedom of speech.
“Freedom is a big subject matter to me in subtle and not-so-subtle ways. I really feel and defend the freedoms that we have in this country, because we lost ours.”
That said, her songs are appreciated a bit more in Cuba now.
“From what I hear, they play them now,” she said. “They now play my songs at the hotels, but they don't say that it's me. They don't announce me on the radio or anything of that nature. But absolutely, the people of Cuba know who I am, because I hear it when they come here to the United States and they tell me.”
Related: Cuban dissident artists behind hit protest song 'Patria y Vida' sentenced to prison
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